Giving, Not Performing…

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Last week we concluded chapter 5 in our study of the Sermon on the Mount. Chapter 6 begins with three passages which go together because Jesus is providing clear direction away from institutionalized religion and into a very private faith. I somehow missed this vital point as a brick and mortar pastor. This should be of interest to a very large portion of our world. This will be a bible study you will never here from the local church.

As I revealed in chapter 5, Jesus’ sermon was probably not very popular with many in the local crowd. If I’m true to the text, then chapter 6 will not be any more widely received by the religious mind today than it was in chapter. As you’ll see, Jesus is not a fan of institutionalized religion and those who are embedded in it’s power structure are not fans of his subversive teachings. The modern religious mind cannot escape a glaring and yet very fair critique of its weekly “big show.” Be it Friday, Saturday or Sunday, far too many attend religious services thinking they are righteous, sometimes even “holier than others” and Jesus exposes this hypocrisy.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4 ESV)

The Greek word recorded here is poiéo (perform, make, construct, do, work) referring to our dikaiosoúnen (righteousness). Jesus will use three examples of righteous deeds (giving, praying, fasting) to prove that true righteousness is not performance art to be displayed in front of others, but belongs in the kruptoi (“crypto”/hidden/the dark). Consider how it must have felt for the original audience to hear Jesus repeatedly refer to the “hypocrites in the Synagog.” An accurate and modern contextualization of this would clearly be Jesus talking about “church going hypocrites. Jesus is deconstructing the cultural container of doing righteousness (institutionalized religion) and trying to get us back to the heart of what it means to be righteous (private faith).

For some people, the motivation for doing righteousness is the approval, validation and recognition of others-its really our motivation for everything. What is Jesus saying about dressing in fancy clothes, volunteering to serve, writing big checks (gifts), and giving our time, not because we want to self-empty (kenosis), but because we want to self-fill? Do you just go along with the pressure of the crowd when the offering plate comes by? Do you feel pressured to give? When you do, do you feel a sense of pride? Do you expect a receipt at the end of the year?Do you need credit for your giving?

Jesus reveals that giving like this is only giving to oneself. Selfish giving bears the reward of vanity and acclaim. For some souls, that is more than enough. Socially, that’s a big reward, spiritually it means part of you is dead inside. When this truth began to dawn on me when working in the Sunday Church delivery system, I was sorely dismayed at how predominant this kind of giving was. Here is a simple test. How many of you would still give to the church if the church was no longer tax deductible? Behind it is the heart that wants credit for being generous. Is it any wonder, so many churches suffer lack? How long can you go to your church and give your money to others in need before your church comes down on you? Try re-alocating your “tithe” to those in your sphere who are in need. What do you think is going to happen?

The correction is to give in such a way that you are not giving thought to the outcomes. “Do not let your left hand know what the right hand is doing.” Be completely moved by the impulse to give and then just give right where the need is. Our giving is to be “in secret” (én tōi kruptōi/ in the hidden/in the darkness). Giving should be done so that no one knows it came from you. Give in such a way that you desire no credit, acclaim, recognition, or accolade for it. It matters nothing if there is a tax deduction. It should be enough that God “sees” (blepo- look, to see, ongoing inferred, to see deeper than the surface/clothing).

A vital point here is that giving is a one-way personal compulsion of love, where God moves on your heart within that secret place, not a bi-directional corporate transaction. Modern religion, just like the synagog in Jesus day, tries to centralize (control) the giving by having everyone give to the church and then the church offers programs for the needy. This corporate model is steeply embedded in our psyche and guilt reflex. What would happen if people in the church followed Jesus advice and, rather than giving corporately, began to selflessly give to those in need within their spheres of influence?

Would the pastor have to get a job just like you? Would the building loan go into default? Would the loss of staff, a jumbotron, and a coffee bar be detrimental to the city? Jesus model of the church would be just fine, the American model for churchianity would be in peril. Do we want the father who sees in secret to reward us in secret, or do we want everyone in town to see what a success our religious project is? Who are we trying to impress with our buildings, nice music, and all our seeker sensitive accoutrements? It’s only necessary if we are trying to impress people, because God sees and Jesus is no more impressed now than he was with the temple built by Solomon. Sit with this for a minute.

Church as a business skims billions of dollars every year from citizens with very little of it going toward programs and services. Most charitable giving at church pays for staff, buildings, insurance, music, parking lots, etc… This shifts the burden of caring for the marginalized in our society to the government and increases the tax burden on citizens. What would our cities look like if hundreds of billions of dollars were utilized to put toward those most in need instead of our religious ego projects?

At my last post in church ministry I gave roughly $250,000 to the “ministry” during our stay there. A fifth of this went to a now defunct missionary fund that helped build an orphanage in Africa that isn’t even being used. The rest went to paying for staff and our cool downtown historic building. Millions went through this small church over the years and there is little to show for it. It is but a single example of a widespread reality. Guess how many programs we had for the poor? Zero. How big was our non-existent food bank?

On the elder board I was a proud tither and even prouder I could go beyond the 10% of my gross. Only the big givers were “qualified” for leadership. I believed this was the reason God blessed my income. When I left I was afraid that perhaps the gravy train would end and I’d lose my job or something. When I stopped giving corporately it was a short ride to leaving the church. I think you will find the same thing to be true. Today, my tax preparer has less formal deductions, but we are 100% connected to our giving and we can do so in private. Knowing that we give from he hidden place has allowed us to experience the true reward: God’s presence. Imagine that, Jesus was trying to free people into God by subverting corporate giving. He’s still doing it today.

You see, the reward for giving is not the giving nor the recognition for the giving. The reward for giving within the hidden is that God sees (blepo). Not having to prove anything to anyone with my giving means that it is no longer a performance. I’ve become free. Are you? Is your pastor? Maybe its time they go and get a job like all of us. Knowing that God sees is all the reward I need. Perhaps this is the path to true righteousness. This is what it means to be merciful, when our eyes move out into our world and we touch the hurting places with our love and our resources. Mercy is not dropping a check in an offering plate. We are challenged to give completely to those things that compel us into love and righteousness, not just keeping some church afloat out of guilt, shame, or giving performance.

Isn’t freedom of the soul the reward we are all really seeking? So why do we care so much about what others will think? Maybe it’s time we stop performing and become hidden.